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Subject: FW: Protecting life but not yet livelihoods


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To: Jan Breitling
Subject: Protecting life but not yet livelihoods

Natural disasters

Protecting life but not yet livelihoods
From The Economist print edition

Mexico's floods fit the pattern of this year's hurricane season: preparedness has restricted loss of life but not economic damage

Things get ugly in Villahermosa

THE scale of it all is difficult to imagine. At the flood's height, over four-fifths of the state of Tabasco, in Mexico's south-east, was under water, damaging the homes of nearly a million people. Villahermosa, the low-lying capital, was inundated after the Grijalva river burst its banks. Canoes hit the roofs of buildings as they evacuated residents; higher ground became disjointed islands in a lake studded with tree-tops. Hundreds of people remain huddled inside the majestic cathedral in the town's centre. Outside the state governor's residence, tens of thousands queued day and night for bags of powdered milk, cereal and drinking water. There are over a hundred shelters in Villahermosa alone, the largest of which houses 4,000 people.

The governor, Andrés Granier, estimates the damage at $5 billion and says it will take months for Tabasco to recover. That timetable seems wildly optimistic. In a state where farming is important, crops and markets have been destroyed. The flooding also hit the still-poorer state of Chiapas. Felipe Calderón, Mexico's president, called it “one of the worst natural disasters in Mexican history” and announced a 7 billion peso ($650m) federal fund for reconstruction. Residents and businesses will be able to delay tax payments until June 2008. Previous Mexican governments have disdained private initiative in such matters, but Mr Calderón called on ordinary people to help, too. They did so, in an outpouring of aid from across the country.

Despite the flooding's catastrophic scale, the death toll has been relatively light (perhaps 25). That was mainly because the waters rose slowly. But it also fits the pattern of this year's hurricane season in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. So far there have been five Atlantic hurricanes, of which two were of maximum strength. (The Tabasco floods were caused by unremitting rain from a tropical depression, rather than a hurricane.) Mercifully, the loss of life has been limited.

In 1998 Hurricane Mitch killed more than 11,000 people in Central America. Since then Mexico and its neighbours have made “giant advances” in their civil protection systems, says Walter Wintzer, who heads the Co-ordination Centre for the Prevention of Natural Disasters in Central America, an inter-governmental body based in Guatemala. The main improvement has been in evacuating residents when hurricanes approach.

Before Hurricane Felix struck in September, Honduran officials managed to evacuate 25,000 people from the poor Caribbean coast. Because their counterparts in Nicaragua found it harder to convince the Miskito Indians to leave their scattered coastal villages, 332 people were left dead or missing there in this year's worst loss of life. In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, too, where Hurricane Noel killed some 150 people, procedures are far from perfect. And some disasters strike almost without warning: that is true of earthquakes and of landslides, such as one in Chiapas this week that killed a score of people.

Emergency aid has also improved, thanks partly to better technology. In Puerto Cabezas, the regional capital closest to Felix's landfall, international aid workers and those from Nicaragua's government congregate with laptops and wireless internet, organising the distribution of food and supplies.

It is harder to mitigate the immense economic damage natural disasters inflict. Ramón Arnesto, who heads Nicaragua's disaster-relief agency, says that Felix deprived 200,000 people of their houses or fields. Because the staple crop on the Mosquito coast is coconut palm, it will take at least five years until villagers can regain their previous living standards. Bananas, a staple across the Caribbean, grow back faster, but new plants still take almost a year to bear fruit.

In Sandy Bay, the hardest-hit Nicaraguan village, six weeks after the hurricane trees were still strewn like a child's toys across the landscape. Almost all the houses still standing have temporary tarpaulins in place of their missing roofs, and lack power: fires made from the fallen trees eerily illuminate the landscape.

One way to reduce the economic cost would be through better planning of human settlement, avoiding the riskiest areas. In Jamaica, officials talk of creating “no-build” zones in exposed coastal areas. But in many countries authorities have no powers to prevent building in vulnerable spots. Jessica Faieta, a United Nations official in El Salvador, notes that the country in the region with the best disaster-preparedness and response plans is Cuba. There is a trade-off between liberty and effectiveness, she points out. In contrast to Hispaniola, there were no reported deaths from Noel in Cuba,

If prevention is hard, there is scope to mitigate the economic impact of disasters. Even after Hurricane Katrina, most Americans can get hurricane insurance, thanks to government guarantees. In Central America such protection is in its infancy. When they are asked whether they have insurance, residents of Villahermosa just laugh.

The Caribbean Community has made more progress: 16 of its member- or associated states have joined a new Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility, a scheme organised by the World Bank after Hurricane Ivan caused severe economic damage in several islands in 2004. They include Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, as well as several very small island states.

The member governments have stumped up $40m in premiums and start-up fees. Payouts are based on the intensity of storms or earthquakes, rather than the number of buildings destroyed. It is hoped that this will discourage building in areas of high risk. The cover falls far short of replacement value but the scheme is designed to pay out quickly, acting as a bridge between emergency help and long-term rebuilding.

Almost a decade after Hurricane Mitch, governments have learned how to save more lives. The next task is to safeguard livelihoods, especially since many scientists predict that climate change is likely to increase the frequency and intensity of hurricanes.

Copyright © 2007 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.